Convivial Computing

In 1973, Ivan Illich published Tools for Conviviality 1, a book about the proper use of technology. Illich pleads for a pluralism of limited tools that guarantee an individual’s right to work with independent efficiency, the development of which is "as unpredictable, creative and lively as the people who use them" 2. His ideas are rooted in ecological thought. He points to overgrowth and overproduction threatening the right to a livable environment. He imagined a future society both very modern yet not dominated by industry, which recognizes natural scales and limits. Illich’s thinking about tools created by and for a community of users was a great influence on Lee Felsenstein, one of the first developers of the personal computer, designer of the Osborne-1 and member of the Homebrew Computer Club.

A 1987 paper by A. C. Lemke and G. Fisher describes convivial computing as computing in which the user has control over the tool on multiple levels 3. Convivial computing should give a user a desired amount of control but shouldn’t require that it be exercised. In their vision, convivial tools will break down the distinction between programming and using programs and see the distinction between user and programmer as a major obstacle for the usefulness of computers. Convivial tools encourage users to be actively engaged with, and to generate creative extensions to, the artefacts given to them, releasing designers of tools from the impossible task of anticipating all possible uses of a tool and all people’s needs.

Characteristics of convivial computing are ’soft software’, that is software that can be changed by the user, simple and modular, in order to avoid having to anticipate what users might want, and ease of use for both casual and expert users. Although important to Illich, environmental concerns aren’t mentioned by Lemke and Fischer, yet their modular approach based on the selection and combination of existing software components, and the idea of ’soft software’ that turns users into designers, makes convivial computing very suitable for use with old hardware and therefore indirectly encourages repair. Convivial tools are also adaptable to changes in, or collapse of, infrastructures, especially if they were combined with open source licenses. The application of Lemke and Fischer’s ideas on convivial computing to sustainability would be very much in line with Illich’s ideas on degrowth and a modern society of responsibly limited tools.

  1. Ivan Illich. 1973. Tools for Conviviality. Harper & Row, New York.
  2. Ivan Illich. 1973. Tools for Conviviality. Harper & Row, New York.
  3. Gerhard Fischer and Andreas C. Lemke. 1987. Constrained Design Processes: Steps Towards Convivial Computing. Technical Report. Colorado University at Boulder Department of Computer Science.